Photo Credit: Eric Spadgenske

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Picoides borealis

STATUS: Breeder. Rare and local in all seasons in Mountain, Inland Coastal Plain, and Gulf Coast regions. Listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. HIGHEST CONSERVATION CONCERN.

DESCRIPTION:  The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is about seven inches long with a wingspan of about 15 inches.  It is approximately the same size as a cardinal.  It has black and white bars arranged on the feathers across the back.  The most distinguishing features are the large white cheek patches that are surrounded by the black cap and nape.  During the breeding season, males may have a small red streak on each side of its black cap that is very difficult to see in the field.  This red streak is referred to as a cockade. 

DISTRIBUTION:  Picoides borealis historically inhabited open pine forest from New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia to Florida.  Their range also extended west to Texas and north to parts of Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Due to the drastic decline of the longleaf pine ecosystem, the red-cockaded woodpecker disappeared from much of its original range.  The current range extends from Florida to Virginia and west to Oklahoma and eastern Texas.  In Alabama, the majority of red-cockaded woodpeckers are found on the Oakmulgee, Talladega, and ConecuhNational Forests.

HABITAT:  Red-cockaded woodpeckers can be found in mature pine forests.  Longleaf forests are the preferred habitat, but other pine forests containing loblolly pine can also be used.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer longleaf pines that average 80 to 120 years old and loblolly pines averaging 70 to 100 years old.  Other woodpeckers make their cavities in dead trees where the wood is soft and/or rotted.  The red-cockaded woodpecker is the only one that commonly makes its cavities in living pine trees.  Pines infected with red heart disease (which causes the inner wood to soften) are preferred for den excavation.  Dense stands of hardwood or hardwood understory are avoided.

FEEDING HABITS:  Red-cockaded woodpeckers feed primarily on insects that are in the egg, larvae, and adult stages.  Insects found in pine trees such as beetles, roaches, spiders, ants, caterpillars, and wood-boring insects are desired.  A small portion of their diet consists of fruits and seeds.  When feeding, red-cockaded woodpeckers flake away the tree bark and probe underneath, using a specialized and forked tongue to extract insects.  It has been noted that males commonly forage in the upper crown and limbs of trees, while females forage on the trunk below.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:  Red-cockaded woodpeckers usually retain the same mate for several years.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in extended family groups.  Within each family group, there is one breeding pair of birds and they usually raise only a single brood each year.  Other non-breeding family group members are called helpers, and are usually males from the previous breeding season.  Helpers participate in incubation, defense of territory and cavities, excavating new cavities (which may take from one to six years), and feeding of young fledglings.  A group of cavity prepared trees, inhabited by a family group of red-cockaded woodpeckers is known as a cluster.  The nesting season usually occurs from April through June.  Two to four small white eggs are laid in a nest made of wood chips.  Incubation lasts from 10 to 12 days and the fledglings remain in the cavity nest for about 26 days.


Mirarchi, Ralph E., Mark A. Bailey, Thomas M. Haggerty, and Troy L. Best, 2004. Alabama Wildlife. Vol. 3. The University of Alabama Press. Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 225 pp.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1985. Recovery Plan for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta, Georgia. 88 pp.

AUTHOR: Randy Liles, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries


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